Monday, December 31, 2012

In Theaters: Django Unchained

Django Unchained poster
Poster via

Django Unchained feels like a movie we should have gotten a long time ago. Hollywood's reluctance to deal frankly with race and the history of black/white relations in America is disappointing for many reasons, but the main one has to be that we too often miss out on the simple pleasure of watching black cowboys battle slaveowners. There are some films along these lines, but not many, and few this high profile. Quentin Tarantino gave us another kind of guilty catharsis in Inglourious Basterds, and at first glance this is cut from the same cloth; a brutally violent exploitation picture about the oppressed taking revenge on bigots, but given a good amount of dramatic weight and narrative complexity. It's not exactly a redressed remake, though, and while Basterds was more about images of violence, Django draws its power from a brutal and uncompromising picture of the ugliness of American slavery. By presenting this material in action/exploitation dress, Tarantino lets this material reach people who wouldn't be caught dead at a respectful biopic of Harriet Tubman.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Theaters: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Hobbit poster via

It's been over ten years since the first of Peter Jackson's films of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings arrived in theaters, and it honestly was starting to feel like we were overdue for a return visit. So The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like an indulgence, expanding Tolkien's much more concise children's story into three epics bolstered with expanded subplots and backstory. And perhaps it can be said to lack the discipline used to tame the earlier material. It's just a little sloppy. But it is Middle Earth, real and sumptuous and inviting, and Jackson makes us feel at home in a fun rambling story that promises to provide three Christmases worth of ornate, overstuffed adventure.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Frasierquest 5.9: Perspectives on Christmas

Tensions rise in Santa's Village

Martin: You know the only part about Christmas I don't like? How quickly it's all over!

Frasier: Yes.  Come December 26th, it's all just a memory.  With nothing but your light decorating touch to remind us.

The problem with a Christmas episode coming up near the actual holidays is that I have to either rush to get to it on or before December 25 or postpone it to at least February or March, when people aren't sick of Christmas stuff. So here we are looking at Christmas of 15 Years Past, and at a brilliant example of the Rashomon approach to sitcom writing. Instead of dissecting a single incident and pitting the characters against each other, though, "Perspectives on Christmas" poses a series of interconnected hassles and stress-inducers for everyone in the main cast, showing how the holidays drive people insane at the same time they bring them together.

Frasierquest 5.8: Desperately Seeking Closure

Roz: Oh, come on, Frasier, why don't you just admit what you're doing here. This isn't some "help-me-be-a-better-person" thing. You're trying to figure out what you can fix so you can win Sam back.

Frasier: Oh, now, Roz, that's proposterous.

Roz: Look who you're talking to! I've been down this road so many times, I call it "The Roz Expressway".
Niles: I've heard that phrase before but in a slightly different context.

(Note: From now on transcriptions are coming via

And it ends as suddenly as it began. You always expect this to happen; sitcom girlfriends and boyfriends are fleeting things. Still, "Desperately Seeking Closure" makes an interesting companion piece with its prior episode, if not the most gripping one. It's another introspective episode for our protagonist, where he faces his need to be liked and ends up finding out at least one thing that's very wrong with him.

Frasierquest 5.7: My Fair Frasier

Frasier shows off his latest gift

Frasier: Thank you, Niles, but I am not some dewey-eyed teenager. But she did say the cutest thing… she said that murderers often show no remorse for their actions because they have no moral center. (beat) It was cute the way she said it.

For a while now we've seen Frasier desperately in pursuit of love, but not as much about what he does when he has it. The first half of an informal two-parter, "My Fair Frasier" largely disposes with the messy chase to dive into the tricky business of being in a relationship, and of the power relations therein. It plays around with gender roles and expectations in a way that's of its time, but will probably still be relevant for a while. In the meantime it's fun TV, more grounded than last week's episode but only by a little.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Random Movie Report #112: White Zombie

The zombie has changed a lot from its cultural origins. Night of the Living Dead and its myriad of sequels and rip-offs ensured that we think of zombies as flesh-and/or-brain-eating ghouls who travel in hordes and destroy civilizations when the word is used, and it's a powerful icon. But the original zombie of voodoo lore, the myth of the mindless servant arising from a culture which developed under the yoke of slavery, has a power of its own. White Zombie takes that central fear, the total loss of will, and expresses it in a uniquely stylish way. An early sound film made by the conventions of silent cinema, it's a fascinating mood piece that could use a little more attention.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Frasierquest 5.6: Voyage of the Damned

Frasier, Roz, and the Barracuda

Roz: I don't see [Maris], maybe she went back out.  Oh, wait.  I see her coat on a hat rack.

Frasier: Look closer.  Is the hat rack moving?

Roz: Oh my God!

Sending characters off on a cruise is a sitcom staple with two key advantages: it provides a change of scenery and opportunity to mix things up, while at the same time being cheaper than actually going anywhere fancy. After an epic 100th episode, "Voyage of the Damned" is a return to manic setbound farce, and it's strongly written enough to excuse any seeming gimmickry in the premise. As highfalutin' as I can get about this show, it is a traditional sitcom, and it will inevitably indulge in classic sitcom tropes. It just does so very well.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I always wondered why those llamas never directed any other movies.

Random Who Report: The Mind Robber (1968)

Doctor Who often straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy; current showrunner Steven Moffatt enjoys invoking a fairy tale feeling, and it's a tradition that goes all the way back to the show's misty black-and-white beginnings. "The Mind Robber" is an especially bold step outside the show's traditional trappings of alien monsters and invasions from space, a piece of metafiction taking us into the land of make-believe as if the show didn't exist there already. The fourth-wall breakage may be in the tradition of Sixties surrealism, but it manages to do this without actually shattering our suspension of disbelief. In the end it does some amazing stuff.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Random Who Report: Delta and the Bannermen (1987)

Delta and the Bannermen DVD cover and Amazon link

The 24th season of Doctor Who was produced under trying circumstances. The BBC held off on formally commissioning the series until the last minute, giving producer John Nathan Turner and new script editor Andrew Cartmel very little time to select and prepare scripts. The sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, had been unceremoniously sacked, and BBC head Michael Grade was still leaning on the staff to make the show less dark and more kid-friendly. And to top it off, they were stuck with a season of fourteen twenty-five minute episodes, meaning very little time to actually tell stories.

"Delta and the Bannermen" is not a particularly bad story, but is brought down by a number of problems. It's too short to ever properly explain itself, too chintzy to really resonate, and unabashedly embraces a pantomime feel that, well, is an acquired taste. At the same time, there's a surrealist charm to parts of it, and perhaps we sci-fi fans are a little too sensitive to our media not taking itself seriously enough. If nothing else it is unique.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My Favorite Movies: Phantom of the Paradise

Poster and link to the French blu-ray

When people talk about the great movie musicals, there's usually one glaring omission. Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise is a cult classic that, while it's inspired a loyal fanbase, hasn't managed the pop culture prominence of similar offbeat rock musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Little Shop of Horrors. But it deserves better; while comparable to those classics, it's also unique. While De Palma has often gotten flak for imitating and ripping off his forebears, in Phantom he manages to synthesize several classic stories and images into a blistering satire of the music industry set to a truly killer song score. It's one of the most purely cinematic musicals ever made, not only original to the medium but dependent on its tricks. And at the core of all the craziness is something heartfelt.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why You Should Be Watching... Part 3: Underrated Sitcom Round-Up

The cast of Ben and Kate

The current TV season is an embarrassment of riches, and the downside of this is it's easy for good shows to fall through the cracks. There are a few sitcoms struggling in the ratings that I'd like to entreat you to check out, especially if you're a Nielsen family. It's all in the name of good television, I'm sure you'll understand.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

In Theaters: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas poster

Cynicism results when we don't see just consequences to our actions, when crimes go unpunished and good deeds seem to be in vain. Cloud Atlas, a staggering epic of multiple stories and people reborn in era after era, is about a lot of things, but I think it's mostly an argument against cynicism. It posits that all of our actions matter, that every gesture has some impact, if not in our lifetime, then in the next, and in ages afterward. But it's as much a work of pure cinema as a philosophical statement; working from the novel by David Mitchell, Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski have created a film that's wonderfully alive and agile. It's fun and surprisingly lightweight for a three-hour epic, a series of well-spun yarns that work on their own as well as together.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Werewolf of London

movie poster and Amazon link

Though werewolf legends are old, the movies are really are primary source for them- the werewolf equivalent of Dracula has yet to be written and most of the lore comes to us via 1941's The Wolf Man. But before Curt Siodmak and Lon Chaney, Jr. laid down the law, there was another werewolf epic from Universal, and possibly the first movie of its kind. Werewolf of London, apart from being the inspiration for a Warren Zevon song, is an interesting primordial take on an iconic monster; blending science and the supernatural, it captures the fundamentally tragic vibe we're familiar with while having an atmosphere all its own.

Monsterthon 2012: The Ghoul (1933)

The Ghoul DVD cover and Amazon link

The first big horror movie wave of the 1930s really changed things. Through the silent era, full-blown supernatural horror was rare; it was more common to gather characters in an old dark house and have them killed off by someone masquerading as a supernatural being. Dracula and Frankenstein let actual monsters loose, but didn't wipe out the old way completely, and the UK production The Ghoul is halfway between subgenres. It's mostly built like a mystery thriller, but adds what seems to be a legitimate monster to the mix, and plays differently as a result. Despite a slightly confused approach it's an effective picture with some standout moments, elevated mostly by Boris Karloff's grim presence.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Plan 9 From Outer Space

Plan 9 cover and Amazon link

Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space would be a tricky film to evaluate even without the iconic status it has attained. Ignored in its initial release, Plan 9 was dubbed "The Worst Movie Of All Time" by Michael and Harry Medved (based on the results of a poll) in the early 80s, but has since come to be regarded as not nearly that bad, but rather one of the Great Bad Movies, so laughable as to be entertaining. That's partly true, but it doesn't fully explain the film's enduring appeal. Many other just as technically inept movies exist, but are too dull or unpleasant to earn such honors. Plan 9 From Outer Space has something unique to it- it's a film that fails on almost every technical level (I say almost because the cinematography isn't bad), but maintains an effervescent energy and a vaguely subversive thrill. Part of it may just be that it's one of the few B sci-fi efforts to deliver what it promises, as ineptly as it does so, and part of it just may be that its crude imagery gets to the core of what we want from movies like this.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Little Shop of Horrors: The Director's Cut (1986)

Little Shop of Horrors poster and Amazon link

It's hard not to love Little Shop of Horrors. It's plain one of my favorite movie musicals, and it captures so much of what was great about the ascent of genre cinema in the 80s; effects technology and audience tastes had advanced to a point where a musical adaptation of a Roger Corman movie about a man and his talking, man-eating plant was prime source material for a big budget holiday extravaganza.  Recently this film has been given a new Blu-Ray release featuring, for the very first time, a restored, darker alternate ending which for a long time was the stuff of legend. This so-called Director's Cut (Frank Oz was not directly involved) works very well in its own right while inviting interesting comparisons to the version seen in theaters, and whichever way you prefer it, it's a great film, vibrant, energetic, and strangely warm and human despite subject matter that's both macabre and outlandish.

(Note that spoilers abound after this point, since the entire difference between both versions of the film is in how they end.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Demons

Demons DVD cover and Amazon link

One of these days, I am going to find a tightly plotted Italian horror film. The laws of probability demand it. But it will be a long search, and in the meantime here's Demons, which is The Evil Dead in a movie theater. It stops making sense pretty early on, but it has a lot of energy to make up for it, and at times is almost awesome in its stupidity. That it works at all says there is something to the style-over-substance approach, as much as it may pain me to admit it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Them!

Them! poster and Amazon link

It's hard to imagine a time before giant bug movies; they were a unique product of fifties nuclear paranoia, sure, but there had to be a first impulse, a first writer or producer to suggest that the anxieties of the age were best represented by insects the size of trucks. Them! was the launching point for an entire subgenre and an influence on a number of films afterwards, but it's never quite gotten the acclaim it deserves as a classic thriller. It's tense, atmospheric, and surprisingly smart, introducing an outrageous concept with enough dedication and discipline to make it work.

Friday, October 19, 2012

In Theaters: Looper

Looper poster

Looper is one of the great surprises of the fall movie season, a picture that without much buildup emerges as a minor sci-fi classic. Time travel stories can be complicated affairs, and you risk losing even the attentive viewer among the contrivances needed to make the plot work. Writer-director Rian Johnson isn't averse to the fancy stuff, but he knows how to present it, and he manages to make it the background for a touching, character-driven story, surrounded by a smart and efficient action thriller.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Frasierquest 5.5: The 1000th Show

Frasier and Niles at the fish market

Niles: Happy Frasier Crane Day.  Or is it Merry Frasier Crane Day, I can never remember.

Many shows never last this long. As meaningless as the hundred episodes milestone is, it's one rarely passed, and so it's a good excuse for a bit of celebration and introspection on Frasier's part. But on top of being a meta exercise, "The 1000th Show" takes Frasier and the gang to a place they've never been before- the real world streets of Seattle, in an epic location shoot that provides a nicely realistic backdrop for an unusually complicated Niles and Frasier misadventure.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

About the Slowdown

You may have noticed the posting volume has declined a bit in recent weeks. My social calendar has been strangely full, and I'm trying to balance having a job finally and being in a relationship with setting aside the time to write for the blog- I can't pull all-nighters to get articles up anymore, and of course I have to have seen or read something in order to blog about it. On top of everything I do have other writing projects that I want to move forward, but I'm going to try and keep up some pace of substantive posts here.

In Theaters: Killer Joe

Killer Joe poster via

A movie like Killer Joe is one I feel compelled to support almost out of principle, because anyone braving the NC-17 rating in this day and age is clearly taking some considerable risk. Never let it be said that William Friedkin has mellowed with age. As with Bug, Tracy Letts adapts from his play, and the results are just as disturbing but in an entirely different way. It's a classic crime thriller in form, but the tone hints at something else altogether, a slippery blend of drama and black comedy that doesn't fall back on the genre's usual beats. Instead it goes to some uniquely terrifying and memorable places, and makes something fresh out of a well-trod genre.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Theaters: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild poster

It's notable that the two best films this year so far are about children interpreting the world through their own fantasies. Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't cut from quite the same cloth as Moonrise Kingdom but it invites a similar level of immersion; in order for it to work at all you have to accept its reality as true. For this reason it's hard to actually judge the film; it plays by its own set of narrative rules and asks the viewer to take it or leave it. But it is absolutely what it sets out to be, and offers a compelling vision of a society on the fringe of what most of us are familiar with.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Frasierquest 5.4: The Kid

Roz gets another surprise.

Frasier: You get to share your life with a remarkable little creature... who only lives in the present, runs around naked without the slightest bit of shame, and can entertain himself for hours just staring at a shiny object. Isn't that wonderful?

Roz: Isn't that Bulldog?

Roz got some very surprising news last time, and now we move from farce to fallout. "The Kid" is a title with two meanings, referring both to Roz's unborn child and the father, himself only college age. (Incidentally, way to go Roz.) It's a graceful handling of the subject matter, which, while not as controversial as it used to be, was probably sensitive nonetheless. And it's a real moment of maturation for Roz as a character, as we finally see her handle a genuine crisis and incipient life change. All in all she takes it rather well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Random Movie Report #111: Message From Space

Message From Space poster and Amazon Link

There's a reason I keep returning to the subject of early attempts to cash in on the success of Star Wars. I'm a fan of Star Wars as you might imagine, and I'm even one of those strange ones who finds artistic value in all six movies, but one saga of heroism, mysticism, and laser fights and exploding spaceships can't possibly be enough. So when I discovered a Japanese ripoff made and released one year later, having taped it off TV back when late night programming was not devoted quite so much to infomercials, I was in heaven. Many, many years later and I haven't been able to track down the DVD which Amazon claims exists, but there is Netflix, and as theoretically sophisticated as I have become in the interim, Message From Space remains a hoot and a half. Shameless in its filching of George Lucas' style, yet with a local flavor all its own, it's a film that makes very little sense and has a lot of things just happen because nobody could think of a better idea at the time, but damn it's pretty.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Preview

Message From Space poster

Random Movie Report #110: Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires DVD cover and Amazon link

Science fiction films of the 1960s were as much influenced by the pop art and psychedelic movements as they were by the actual space race. Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires is a good example of the strange, stagey unreality that many genre films of the time embraced, but also an engaging thriller in its own right and a clear influence on Alien. Plotwise it suffers one or two of the maladies that plagued European genre cinema of the time, but it's moody enough to power through.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Frasierquest 5.3: Halloween

Roz as O.

Roz: Even the best protection is only effective ninety-nine out of a hundred times. I can't beat those odds!

I've been lax with Frasierquest over the summer, seemingly too busy to watch 25 minutes of television, but as August starts to wind down I think I'm ready to really dive into the fifth season, and into the start of the biggest plot arc the show has attempted so far. Big changes are afoot in "Halloween" and what's notable is how deftly the show navigates a revelation that can be fatally clich├ęd. It does this by making the plot point in question the impetus for a classic misread behavior story, playing on multiple character relationships on top of Roz's own dilemma.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Random Movie Report #109: Gog

Gog DVD cover and Amazon link

Brian Aldiss once said, "Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts." While good stories can come from an attention to real-world science and its details, they can't afford to neglect human emotions and plain old visceral appeal. Gog, an obscure sci-fi techno-thriller from 1954, is a cautionary tale of what happens when the human factor is forgotten. It's admirably smart and slickly produced, but it plays like the screenwriter vomited the contents of an issue of Popular Mechanics onto the page. Like many science fiction movies from this era it's interesting as a portrait of a time when the scientific-industrial complex was moving boldly forward whether we liked it or not, but a potentially good story gets buried under all that exposition.

The film is set at a top secret underground research facility located in the desert. Two scientists studying cryogenic freezing are mysteriously killed when their equipment malfunctions, and government agent Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan) is sent to investigate. Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), an old flame of his, leads him on a grand tour of the facility, which is aimed at sending up the first space station, and to that end is researching deep freezing, crude solar power (focusing the sun's rays on a boiler to heat water to spin a turbine), weightlessness, atomic energy, and robotics. The very German Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) is in charge of the base's NOVAC supercomputer and two multifunctional robots named Gog and Magog. While Sheppard is on the tour, mysterious sounds start coming in from an object flying over the base, and the killings begin again.

I would like to point out that it is in fact over halfway into the movie before the killings begin again and Sheppard finishes his tour. The bulk of what I imagine would be "Act One" is composed of demonstration after demonstration of scientific wonders, and it's about as thrilling as you'd imagine. From what I can tell most of it has at least some basis in fact (the facts that we knew, anyway), but it insists on making its point long after actually doing so. To use just one example, to show how powerful the solar ray is, the scientists use it to heat a piece of metal, then melt a bar of steel, then set fire to a model city, and [i]then[/i] to boil a model lake away into nothing, all in far more time than it takes for those things to stop being fun. The weightlessness simulation is similarly agonizing, with two leotard-clad test subjects performing some mildly impressive gymnastic moves before eventually the fake wirework takes over and they unconvincingly levitate a little. (Throughout the male scientists make leering 50s talk about the female gymnast, which is kind of funny because her outfit is a combination of unrevealing tights and what appears to be chain mail.) The demonstration of NOVAC and the robots is seemingly as slow as computers back then actually worked, and while there's a certain retro value to see everything programmed in via punchcards, this too loses its flavor.

Then again, maybe it's not the scientific rambling that's the problem. Even the parts of the movie where things actually happen are staged in an odd, repetitive, methodical manner. The killings are all very slow indeed, the mysterious sounds threaten to blow up the station by gradually increasing in pitch and making a bunch of tuning forks vibrate, and even at the climax, when the film has finally started to pick up some kind of steam, the filmmakers' steadfast refusal to use any kind of narrative shorthand keeps the action from getting too exciting. It's like a film made by the kind of people who complain about continuity errors in comic books; we see everything happen so that there can be no dispute over what just happened.

As I mentioned earlier the film looks really nice, with a clean modernist design and believable technology. The robots are as clunky and inhuman as makes practical sense- they're bundles of appendages, like the actual probes we've ended up sending into space- but have a certain personality too (enough to get star billing, at least.) And when the plot is finally moving, there is some genuine suspense as well as some surprise in the mystery unfolding.

In the end I'm thinking this probably would have made a really good short film or radio play. The consistently slow pace of the picture makes me think there was padding involved getting this to feature length, or else it was simply a question of nobody being ruthless enough in rewrites or the editing room. It demonstrates a lot of the qualities of "Golden Age" science fiction, but the bad aspects of this, notably an emphasis on technology over people and some relentless cheerleading for the March of American Scientific Progress, overwhelm the good. And really, considering the title, the robots need way more screen time. They're more alive than half the characters.

Story by Ivan Tors
Screenplay by Tom Taggart with Additional Dialogue by Richard G. Taylor
Directed by Herbert L. Strock

Grade: C

Monday, August 27, 2012

Academy of the Underrated: Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon poster and Amazon link

Of Hollywoods' attempts to jump back into the sci-fi game in the late 70s and early 80s, none is quite so endearingly crazy as Dino de Laurentiis' feature film Flash Gordon. It was misguided from the start, a throwback to the deliberate camp of 60s films like Barbarella rather than believable fantasy worlds, but while it was a recipe for commercial disappointment it's become an utterly charming cult film. With a gorgeous candy-colored visual style, wonderfully over the top actors, and a hilarious rock score with songs by Queen, it was the Speed Racer of its day, and it has everything you could want apart from a good lead performance. Oh, well, you can't have it all.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Favorite Movies: Videodrome

Videodrome Blu-Ray cover and Amazon link

I grew up in the video age. I have never known a time when it wasn't possible to preserve and disseminate audio/visual media with relative ease, and it's easy to take for granted the impact this has had on our society and culture. This may be the reason Videodrome speaks to me as much as it does. David Cronenberg's landmark film is a brutal, intense, and cunningly crafted nightmare, and on every viewing it reveals new details and new avenues of thought. The film not only shows its filmmaker's unique vision of the world, but is a brilliant encapsulation of its time. And it tackles the issue of the media's influence on our lives with the complexity and ambiguity that nonfiction writers too often pretend isn't there.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

In Theaters: The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises poster
Poster via

At this point there's no shortage of opinions about The Dark Knight Rises; even mentioning that it's the last in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman pictures is just saying what most people know already. But it's been just polarizing enough that I feel like weighing in. No, it's not as good as The Dark Knight. It's long and it does take a while to get going. But the payoff is remarkable in its scope and complexity; it's a memorable portrait of social breakdown that touches on issues of the day without feeling confined by them. And it provides the Batman story with an ending that, in a way, is as fitting as Frank Miller's legendary The Dark Knight Returns.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Flash Gordon (1980)

I have to get up early tomorrow, so while I've got a couple of pieces cooking, enjoy the perfect blend of sound and image.

In Theaters: Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom poster
Poster via

Moonrise Kingdom is a true original. It's hard to describe just what it is- a story of young love, a children's adventure that's not entirely appropriate for children, a droll comedy that nonetheless can be deadly serious about the feelings involved. I've never seen a movie quite like it, but it's endearing, beautifully made, and even though it has so many of Wes Anderson's signature touches, it feels like a quantum leap for him. This is a special one, folks.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Random Movie Report #108: King Kong Lives

King Kong Lives DVD Cover and Amazon Link

One of the reasons for my recent Kong retrospective was that I've become enamored of the theory that giant apes can make any movie worth watching. Scientifically speaking, the only way to test such a theory is to see a really bad giant ape movie, so I decided to be a completist (read: idiot) and watch King Kong Lives, the sequel to De Laurentiis' Kong remake that mostly survives as a record of a bunch of really bad decisions. Honestly, I went in open minded, but it's a movie that doesn't work for a lot of reasons, chief among them a petty, exploitative atmosphere that does little justice to the majesty of one of the screen's most iconic characters. Now, we do get two giant apes instead of one, and they wreck things and step on people and do the things we expect giant apes to do, but I'm not sure if it falsifies my theory or not.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Random Movie Report #107: Matango

Matango DVD cover and overpriced Amazon link

Matango has long been a picture that intrigued me, ever since I first saw bootleg videotapes labelled "Attack of the Mushroom People" being sold at a convention. The movie didn't get much circulation in America until its 2005 DVD release, and it's too weird to easily fall into familiar niches- it's not quite a kaiju picture, nor a straight horror film. Instead it's a weird fable about dehumanization and conformity that articulates its metaphor through the central image of people turning into fungus. In some ways it straddles the line between Toho's conventional movies and the more surreal Japanese art films that began to flourish in this decade and afterwards, and it's a response to the same anxiety about rapid social change and technological progress. It's also an effectively creepy and atmospheric little picture that, if it drags a little, still has a Hell of a payoff.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Frasierquest 5.2: The Gift Horse

Niles and Martin with Agides

Roz (reading Sherry's invitation): "Come one, come all, to jump and jive, Marty Crane's turning SEX-ty five!"

This episode is a bit of a nostalgia trip, not just because I caught it on the first airing but because it takes place in a distant age when big-screen TVs were giant monoliths requiring heavy labor to install. This may not seem like a big deal, but a major plot element of the episode- Frasier weighing his desire to buy Martin the perfect birthday gift against the damage a giant slab of a television will do to his apartment design- is one that's almost foreign in the age of sleek flatscreens and tiny speakers. It's appropriate that this part of the plot feels out of date, since "The Gift Horse" is really an episode about things- or rather people- being out of date. Martin Crane is turning 65 (or "sexty-five" according to Sherry), and while his sons bicker over what to get him for his birthday, they're overlooking what this passage of time really means.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In Theaters: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter poster
Poster via

Camp works best when taken seriously. The more absurd a premise is, the more heartfelt the people advancing it should be in their belief. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has its premise spelled out in the title, and it would seem to demand a tongue-in-cheek treatment from that alone. But not only have the filmmakers (including Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel) played the premise straight, they manage to justify it by making the familiar undead hordes into a symbol for everything Lincoln was seen to fight against. While many have complained about the serious approach the movie takes, in the end we've got a really strong and skillfully done action movie which is just funny enough to temper our disbelief. It deserves better than it's getting.

Friday, July 13, 2012

In Theaters: The Amazing Spider-Man

Amazing Spider-Man poster
Poster via

As much as I strive to be impartial (or at least not so biased that my opinions are worth nothing), I admit that in my eyes The Amazing Spider-Man had a strike against it going in. This is a film made out of contractual obligation, rushed into production by Sony so that they could retain the movie rights to Spider-Man rather than let them revert back to Marvel, who are now owned by Disney and are unlikely to lend anything out again.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

In Theaters: Brave

Brave poster
Poster via

I may not be able to be entirely rational about this movie. Brave basically had its hooks in me from its opening scene, in which an adorably adventurous little girl buried under a mass of floppy red hair is given her very own bow by her warlord father before traipsing off into the woods in pursuit of will' o the wisps. This is Pixar's first film with a female protagonist, and she's a charmer, even as she manifests some all too real flaws of kids her age. As familiar as this fairy tale may be at times, there's a compelling emotional truth at the center of it.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Random Movie Report #107: The Mysterians

Mysterians DVD cover

There's a lot going on in The Mysterians. On a surface level, it's notable as the prototype for nearly all of Toho's alien invasion epics, setting up a number of familiar visual and aural tropes that would recur for over a decade. But it's also an interesting look at Japan's place in a postwar world and the atomic age, with issues raised both intentionally and not ranging from atomic devastation to racial anxiety to the curious way war advances technology. Subtext in and of itself doesn't make a movie good or bad, but fortunately The Mysterians is also a fun and well-crafted story with a neat atmosphere that's just slightly askew from the company's other entries in the subgenre. Any film with a giant robot mole in it isn't entirely playing by normal rules.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Random Who Report: Planet of the Spiders (1974)

DVD cover and Amazon link

The Doctors' final stories tended to be ambitious undertakings, and Pertwee's definitely follows in that tradition. "Planet of the Spiders" is not only the last of the third Doctor's adventures and a semi-sequel to "The Green Death" from a season ago, but also a trippy Buddhist allegory about death and rebirth. It has a lot on its plate and is kinda disjointed as a result, but pulls itself together at the end to provide a fitting send-off for the actor who had, up to that point, played the character of the Doctor longer than anyone else.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In Theaters: Prometheus

Prometheus movie poster.
Poster via

Prometheus is the rare spectacle that allows itself room to breathe. An ambitious science fiction thriller which deliberately "precedes" director Ridley Scott's Alien, Prometheus also echoes masterpieces like Forbidden Planet and even 2001, and even if it falls short of those lofty heights it's a refreshingly thoughtful movie. If Alien was pure terror, Prometheus is more the danger and excitement of heading into the unknown. It's a movie where what waits at the end of the universe isn't very friendly at all, but there's still a thrill in uncovering it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Live Tonight! An Evening of Audio Theater

Zombies! Dogs! Romance! Bigfoot!

At 7:30 Central Time (that's 8:30 eastern, etc.), the National Audio Theater Workshop for 2012 will present their end product, a 2-hour evening of radio theater, live from the West Plains Civic Center here in southern Missouri.

We will be on local radio, but for those not in the area, the National Audio Theater Festivals web page will be streaming it live as it happens. The link is not on their page right now as I post this, but it will be come showtime.

The work will feature the voice acting of such veterans as the Firesign Theatre's Phil Proctor and David Ossman, and audiobook luminary Barbara Rosenblatt, as well as amateur participants from all over the world. (Translation: one of them is from England.)

The plays:

  • "The Last Broadcast", a brutal horror epic featuring a zombie invasion at the doorstep of a local radio station.
  • "September, September", a touching romance between a teacher and an older man unsure of commitment.
  • "Workshop 101", written by the Workshop's freshman class- this year, the story of a struggling farmer, a wealthy developer, and a giant apelike creature named MoMo.
  • "On The Internet, Nobody Knows You're A Dog", a raucous comedy about a family and the dogs who secretly run their lives.
Tune in! Enjoy! Tell your friends! I'll be telling mine!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury

There's not a lot I can say about Ray Bradbury that others haven't, but I feel compelled to talk anyway. He was a hero of mine, and probably is my single favorite writer. In truth he's a great example for anyone who writes, who wants to write, who thinks of the whole writing thing.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

In Theaters: Battleship

Battleship movie poster
Poster via

The sad irony of Battleship is that it would probably be doing just a little bit better- or at least receive a little more goodwill- if it weren't named after a board game in an attempt to create profitable corporate synergy. The same public that had no problems patronizing the Marvel Studios uber-franchise or a live-action Smurfs movie have drawn their line in the sand, and a film based on a boardgame is a step too far no matter how good or bad it is.

But hear me out on this. It's actually pretty good. However cynically calculated the initial boardroom meetings that produced this movie may have been, at some point director Peter Berg and writers Erich and Jon Hoeber (as well as any others who may have been involved) and the rest of the filmmakers decided to actually try and make a good, sincere sci-fi/war movie based on the simple premise of the Navy fighting aliens, and their efforts paid off. Battleship works on a simple but satisfying level, and it has the important lesson that you shouldn't judge a film by its premise.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Frasierquest 5.1: Frasier's Imaginary Friend

Frasier attempts to get it on film.

Frasier: I am dating a supermodel zoologist, whom I stole away from a football player, and she is off to the Galapagos Islands to artificially inseminate iguanas! Is that so hard to believe?

Season Five marks a lot of milestones. It has the show's one hundredth episode, some major character developments, earned the show a fifth consecutive Best Comedy Emmy, and it aired alongside the first syndicated reruns, which shows relied on to reach immortality before home video releases were commonplace. So a big year lies before us, but the premiere is focused on resolving a little bit of business from last season. When we last left Frasier, he was still going through a desperate romantic dry spell, which compelled him to board a plane to Acapulco. At long last, the dry spell ends, but in a way that so typifies what makes Frasier, well,  Frasier.

Random Movie Report #106: Scanners

Scanners DVD cover and Amazon link

Scanners isn't the best film David Cronenberg has made, or even the most commercially successful, but it's become a cult classic all the same. A lot of this is, let's be honest, down to the scene where a guy's head explodes. It was the sort of big gory shocker that could make a movie's reputation in the splatter era, and it helped to cement Cronenberg's reputation as One to Watch Out For in the new breed of horror filmmakers.

Explosive cranial displacement aside, Scanners is an intense flick. Drawing heavily from the work of writers like Philip K. Dick, A. E. Van Vogt, and Alfred Bester, Cronenberg puts together a slick and thoughtful sci-fi tale which presents the old chestnut of telepathy in a unique and visceral way, and becomes a story about a new culture rebelling against its elders. Though not quite as polished as the filmmaker's  later work, it's a really good example of how to make a technological thriller on a low budget, and ultimately a pretty compelling ride.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Three Faces of Kong, Pt. 3: 2005

Poster and Amazon link

And we come to the movie that got me started on this. I wanted to talk about Peter Jackson's King Kong but it's hard to do so without reviewing what's gone before, even if you're a formalist like me who believes in taking a work of art in and of itself before going on about external connections. Sometimes those connections are key to understanding, though. The first time I saw the 2005 take on Kong, I thought it was very well made but somehow dissatisfying. The length of the action sequences, or indeed the film overall, didn't bother me much, but the intensity of it is a bit draining and the sadness of it is more pronounced than in the original. Like the seventies remake it can't quite dodge our modern sensibilities, which inevitably turn the story from a fun adventure to a plain tragedy. But on re-watching, what makes this movie great is that it goes beyond just moping about our mistreatment of nature. Instead it expands on the world and themes of the story, creating something that's suitably lush and fantastic for our time, and being almost as powerful. If the original Kong was about Beauty and the Beast, Jackson's film is about how the pursuit of beauty can make beasts of us.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Three Faces of Kong, Pt. 2: 1976

King Kong poster and Amazon link

The Dino De Laurentiis-produced remake of King Kong is an interesting case, in that it's not very good but still quite watchable because, in the end, it's still about a giant ape. Apes seem to make everything better, and the 1976 King Kong is the kind of movie I'm willing to watch even if it always disappoints just a little. My relationship with it is complicated. This is a movie that does a lot of things right, but there's something wrong with the core of it- it's a version of the original story with a lot of the magic and adventure missing, replaced as the times dictate with a grim cynicism and too many attempts to poke fun at itself. It's not without its moments, though.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On Dan Harmon's Removal from Community and Similar Bullshit

Annie tells it like it is

I should say something about Dan Harmon being fired from Community. God knows it's been bugging me enough. After the exhilaration of the show being renewed, followed by a gloriously fun three-episode finale, Sony Pictures Television decided to throw us all in the dumps by ousting its showrunner without even so much as a courtesy call, and so threatening to turn one of the most cutting edge shows on TV into something depressingly normal.

Obviously certain things must be gotten out of the way first. This is a low-rated show and it's a damn miracle it's been on as long as it has, and Harmon does not have the very best reputation as a showrunner- he recently had a major personality clash with star Chevy Chase (though in defense, Chase also has a difficult reputation), and there were rumblings of this for a time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Three Faces of Kong, Pt. 1: 1933

King Kong poster and link to the Blu-Ray on Amazon

King Kong is an icon of cinema, and indeed a household name. A single film in 1933 was enough to endear him to the world, partly because it's a classic and partly because it was the first motion picture to realize the awesomeness of giant apes. This simian innovation is but one part of the legend, and here at the Club I've decided to look at the three major renditions of this classic story, from its original version all the way to the Kong of the digital age. I'm not touching any of the sequels or tie-ins yet, except of course for the monster's two Japanese outings, chronicled here and here.

Okay, this is partly because of the title. I'm proud of it dammit.

So we start in 1933, with one of the very best films ever made. King Kong is in some ways the ultimate demonstration of what people talk about when they talk about the magic of the movies. It shows us things that can only exist in the imagination and makes them vividly real, even more than real, for the time we watch it. It's a blend of romance, adventure, and tragedy that with time and changing attitudes has become more complex than its makers even intended, but hasn't lots its original emotional power in the process. Superlatives are hard to avoid in talking about this one.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Frasierquest 4.23: Odd Man Out

Frasier's not-so-chance encounter

Frasier: Great news! Laura's in town!

Niles: Who's Laura?

Frasier: A stranger who called my machine by mistake.

Season four closes on an odd note, but not one unwarranted by what's gone before. For once paying little to no attention to the the problems of other characters, "Odd Man Out" is all about Frasier being in a rut. It's a rut we've seen him in all season, and it reaches a peak here that inspires him to commit an act of romantic chivalry with Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies. The result is a simple story that starts out realistically awkward but ends up very sweet.

After Roz skips out on her own birthday dinner, Frasier has a humiliating experience dining alone in a restaurant of families and loving couples. In his early 40s and still single, he's starting to realize that Lilith was a long time ago. When he finds that a woman named Laura (Linda Hamilton, a guest caller on the show's first episode) called his machine by mistake and is arriving at the airport, he finds himself mysteriously drawn to her. She's a cellist, she's witty and cultured, and as Martin observes she expresses affection easily. So off to the airport Frasier goes, to rescue a woman he's never met from the horrible fate of having to take a cab.

All of this is building off Frasier's "dry spell" that's lasted most of the season. If he had been doing maybe a little better in the dating department, his desperation here wouldn't seem so believable, and while this doesn't seem like it was planned explicitly, it works well regardless. The episode is about him feeling lonelier than he ever has in his life, and at times it's almost too cutting. (Then again, I've eaten alone a lot of times without feeling a stigma about it. I'm weird that way.)

That the episode focuses on Frasier to the near-total exclusion of everyone else is unusual for a sitcom season finale. There's no real taking stock of where all the other characters are in their lives as in years past. It's easy enough to infer some things- Martin is still with Sherry, Niles is still in couples therapy, and Daphne and Roz are single and doing their best to enjoy it. It makes sense, then, to focus on Frasier, because he's the one with the most problems.

The redemption Frasier finds at the end of his adventure is not quite what he hoped for. Laura's married, but she tells him he should appreciate the thrill of not being married. It's a concept that cuts to the heart of Frasier as a character- he craves a certainty and stability to his life that just isn't there, and looks ridiculous as a result. But for a moment, at the end of his rope, he's willing to listen.

So we end the season with Frasier off to Mexico in pursuit of another beautiful woman, a redemptive yet silly note showing his optimism after a year of setbacks. This is not a man who stays down for long, which is why we can enjoy his pratfalls. After what is easily one of the show's best years, though, he's earned a vacation.

No Guest Caller

Written by Suzanne Martin
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired May 27, 1997

Daphne: And I have a date with Greg.

Frasier: Greg? I don't believe I've met him yet.

Martin: I have, he's gorgeous. (Off their looks) Well, he is!

Daphne: Certainly the best looking man I've ever been out with. Of course, he doesn't have a thought in that pretty little head of his. Oh, this could be the one.